Monday, March 29, 2010

Blast from the Past

Originally published two years ago, today.

Still applicable?

*********It seems that I'm not the only "cock-eyed optimist" when it comes to believing that the suburbs are a viable option in a potentially oil-starved future.

Over at Groovy Green, Aaron Newton posted an article entitled Can We Stay in the Suburbs? His argument that we can is really good - probably better than anything I've written on the topic. Please follow the link to read his fantastic commentary.

The last sentence of his article is we might do best to just stay put.

And to that I say ...

... I completely agree! 100%. We would do best to stay put. Pay off our mortgages, before things get REALLY bad, and own our little partial acres on which we can grow a plethora of crops for personal consumption and potential resale (check out this potential "cash crop" or this one, and this book on backyard market gardening).

On my quarter acre suburban lot, we have several raised beds (most of which were filled entirely by compost we made right here), two perennial herb beds, asparagus, some border plants like rhubarb, raspberry and blackberry brambles, hazelnut bushes, a strawberry bed, several dwarf fruit trees, a grape vine, and several large maples that we tapped for maple syrup just this year. We also have chickens (and ducks as of 2009 :) for eggs and meat, and raise rabbits for meat and fertilizer. Someday, I hope to get a dairy goat.

And I'm not even using all of the space that is available to me to its greatest potential. Using a combination of companion planting, container planting, trellising, and hanging planters, I could, potentially, feed my family of five with just what we could grow ... or forage. In the suburbs where I live, there is a lot of "undeveloped" land on which are growing any number of edible "weeds".

Contrary to what one person who commented on the article asserts, we will not be starving here in the suburbs.

But it's not just food that makes the suburbs a better choice than densely populated urban centers. In an oil-starved future, the oil-dependent infrastructure that keeps these cities clean will no longer be operational. Where I live, we have a septic system, but it would be really easy to build an outhouse or install a composting toilet, and that compost would have a place in my landscaping. In addition, living in more spread-out housing means there is less likelihood of the rampant spread of infectious disease.

We can build self-sufficient communities in the suburbs, not unlike those walkable communities Kunstler is so enamored of.

In the suburbs, we all have a little bit of farmable land, and we all have space in our homes for some small entrepreneurial endeavor (i.e. home business). It would be a huge mistake to give up the suburbs to move into what will likely become the over-crowded, disease ridden cities that we were trying to escape when we built the suburbs in the first place ... or worse, to build new communities in what are currently undeveloped, natural habitats or good, arable farmland.

I say, we have done enough of trying to figure out how to create the perfect Utopian community (hint: there is no such thing), and it is now time to figure out how to make what we have fit what we need. *********

Two years later, and nothing's changed ... except that we're much closer to that collapse we've been hearing about, but not any closer to developing solutions. Sad, I think.

My challenge to you for today: If you live in the suburbs, go out today and meet one of your neighbors. Take cookies ... or homemade muffins. Even if they don't eat it, they'll appreciate the gesture.


  1. A quality post is one that makes you think, and this post certainly does just that! I’ve been sitting here for most of an hour, going over the pros and cons of city vs suburbs, and the failure of Planning and Zoning Commissions in my area.
    Your statement on Utopia being an imaginary place is absolutely correct. We’re far from it, so we need to make what we have work better for us.

  2. Suburbs over urban areas no doubt. But why not rural areas over suburbs?

  3. Suburban ... you ask a good question, and the answer is actually multi-layered. I've addressed it before, many times over the four years that I've been writing this blog. The most comprehensive answers were in a series of posts that were published on my blog two years ago. I moved them to an off-line archive, but they had been republished on the ezine, Groovy Green. There's a link on my side bar to the articles (Parts I through VIII).

    But(what I hope will be) the short answer is that there simply isn't enough room for everyone to move to a rural area, and also, we're running out of time to start moving.

    The fact is that, right now, we still need money to move, and in most suburban areas, there are still jobs, but in many rural areas, the job opportunities are extremely limited. As you pointed out on your blog recently, it's not enough to have a stockpile of seeds. When TSHTF, we will need to know how to make that seed into something that will sustain us, and if we wait until TSHTF to start learning, we're screwed.

    We just don't have time to start building all of these communities out in wilderness areas, and it would be worse than a "misallocation of resources" to abandon the mess that is suburbia and make another mess someplace else. We need to work with what we've made rather than destroying virgin land to make something we think will serve us better. It's like throwing away a perfectly good pair of socks because they have a tiny hole. The hole can be fixed. We have to start fixing the holes rather than buying new socks.

    We can't abandon suburbia, because we made a mistake, and we did make a mistake, but we need to admit the mistake and find a way to make it better. For those of us currently in the suburbs (which I define as single-family homes on less than an acre of land), staying in the suburbs, learning some small space subsistence farming techniques, starting home-based businesses that will generate income (either monetary or on a barter system), and cultivating community is the only responsible way to handle what's coming at us.

  4. Ah, I haven't been reading this blog that long. Went through the articles at Groovy Green and understand your situation a bit better.

    I completely understand the difficulties in coordinating a move with a job search to a new location - been working on that for awhile. When we decided to move, I spent all time after work for about three months+ getting our place ready to sell (crown molding, painting, fixtures, etc.). The main goal was to simply get out from under a mortgage w/o losing too much so we could move when the right job came along, and we got out just before going upside down (after watching the fabulous gains disappear!). Still searching for the right job, and due to some conditions in the lease it really does need to be the right job.

    Not enough room in rural areas for everyone? I can agree with that, if that means the entire U.S. population. But those who believe a collapse is coming are a small minority for which there is more than ample room in rural areas. Many rural areas have been experiencing population declines for decades, with farm houses sitting empty. The land can be had relatively very, very cheaply.

    The real issue seems to be (a) being upside down (for many these days), and (b) jobs in rural areas. Both good reasons to stay put and develop the critical skills you are, and teaching them to your kids. If there is a slow collapse, you might be fine right there. If there is a fast collapse, as we've discussed before (bugging out), I fear you'll see the Golden Horde coming to take all the bounty the think is in "the country" (relative term for those in the cities to your south).

    That's where the community issue previously discussed comes in, especially in defense, and probably food/goods trade. I've never been to Maine (except in Stephen King books), but I hear folks up there are a bit different than other easterners (in a good way). My guess is if you make it a year after a fast collapse, you've made it. If you were a bit further SW, I'd say longer chances, but Maine might be okay. I really do hope so.

  5. Suburban - I certainly do agree with your comment that in a fast crash there will be plenty of room in the countryside for those who are left, but I still maintain that our suburbs will be a good place to be - even in a full, catastrophic collapse.

    I don't know if you're familiar with Farfel at all, who lives in Argentina and has been a witness to their collapse. He talks about the various living situations in a collapse scenario and says that the city is good, because of the safety in numbers factor, but it's bad, because there is no food. The country is good because there's food, but widely scattered, sparsely populated farmsteads are more vulnerable to those "Golden Hordes", because they are more difficult to defend. The suburbs, he says, are the happy medium, because they are just densely populated enough to provide protection, but they also have a bit of land that allows for food production.

  6. I would consider the Argentinean financial crisis to be akin to a part of a slow collapse when applied to America - in which case the burbs would be fine - but not a full/fast collapse. During that crisis the govt was still functioning, most people still working, and agricultural product were being exported.

    For a catastrophic collapse, however, I mean a complete breakdown of the interdependent systems we call govt and civilization.

    Consider the town on the book One Second After; Black Mountain, North Carolina, which in the book was a small town with a setting not unlike suburbia, except more isolated and defensible. It also had a gravity fed water system not dependent on electricity for most of the town.

    Black Mountain pretty much set the example to follow for a large community in pooling food/security resources, including planting all available space and obtaining livestock from nearby farmers. I believe the descriptions of the obstacles faced by that community were also very realistic, with outcomes perhaps even better than can be expected in reality. For a suburban setting post collapse it is probably the best that could be expected. Unfortunately that includes an approximately 20% survival rate after one year, mostly due to starvation and the effects of.

    Your community could probably do well at defense for awhile. But considering the population of the NE U.S., the horde would arrive in waves. If not an EMP attack, most people would probably shelter in place until most local resources were gone or nearly so - food, water, medicine, fuel. Then, thinking there is food in the burbs would start to move. People heading to your community to stay with friends/relatives (would the community allow them?), people heading to Canada, people heading to the coast to fish, people heading to the woods to hunt. Lots of hungry, armed, desperate people. I look at the population distribution maps, and can guess a lot would think it would be a good place to go.

    Anyone in New England with an idea of geography would have to consider staying in urban areas, making the long walk away from population centers to food (e.g. Kansas wheat, Nebraska corn), or head the shorter distance to the north and east to the woods to hunt, and perhaps on to the coast for seafood. Which roads would be easier? Some of them will have picked up more substantial weapons, probably.

    And I should have been more specific about rural areas; if doing a full relocation I would personally not consider anyplace east of the Mississippi River due to the vast concentration of population there. Very luckily for me, the place I will retreat to is in Nebraska, near but outside a small town, not near a large city and 30 miles from an Interstate in a direction most folks would not go - it's well off the beaten track. When I move it won’t be there, but it will be much closer by vehicle and, if bugging out on foot is required, likely achievable, unlike my current situation.

    In places like that, crops will rot in the ground for want of people to harvest them. Game may get scarce, but many rural town have large granaries for grain storage, which could easily feed a small town for more than a year (if not commandeered by state/fed authorities).

    If an EMP, the Golden Horde would very likely not make it to such remote locations. Remnants yes, but it is a heavily armed region they would face. If not an EMP, as noted above, it’s my guess that most people will consume resources in place, waiting for the government to rescue them, before realizing how serious things are, but by then it’s too late to travel as far at speed. A critical time for those who do realize it and bug out.

    Long winded, but IMO the suburbs would be fine in a slow collapse scenario, though if it’s a fast one, I’d head as far west as soon as possible. You may not have a place to go, but you have valuable skills to barter with.